Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Essay / How To Go For A Walk

How To Go For A Walk
By Frank W. Sudia / Copyright © 2006 / All rights reserved
September 6, 2006

Keywords: Creativity, Innovation, Nonlinear Thinking

1. Introduction

Very few people walk for creativity or mental recreation. I know this because I walk a great deal, but rarely see others like myself, who seem to be out for the sheer joy of moving in space. There have been few if any that I could recognize on a regular basis, much less see them making notes of their ideas.

Long ago our family had a dog, and as a chore we would walk it after dinner. We started having some very interesting conversations, and walking the dog became secondary. Our dog is long since deceased, and I have no one else to walk with who wants to do creative thinking, so now I walk alone. I call this “walking my inner dog.”

2. Why Walk?

Walking has been touted as one of the best forms of exercise for maintaining aerobic capacity and staying in shape. It is also, I believe, the Natural State of Man (or Woman) to be moving at about three miles per hour, with your eyes located about 5-6 feet above the ground, through an interesting natural, visual environment. It seems to bring you back to your roots, like the first humans who walked upright on the African savannah several million years ago.

More tangibly, walking can unlock creativity. It is difficult to think creatively at a desk or a keyboard. Creative thinking is non-linear. In fact, many artists and business people, intuitively aware of this problem, pace around their offices or studios, to generate blood flow, muscle actions, and moving scenery. Virginia Woolfe, for example, had a high writing desk that she could stand at. Identify a bookcase top or other ledge of suitable (elbow) height in your home or workplace and keep it stocked with pens and paper.

3. Where to Walk

Do not walk in areas where you feel unsafe or ill at ease, or which are run down or unattractive. You want to focus your mental efforts on creative thinking, not analyzing possibly threatening people or dismal, dangerous situations!

The best places to walk are the well-manicured neighborhoods of the well off, or better yet the wealthy. These are low crime areas, well cared for, with artistic landscaping, sublime architecture, nice views, etc. Dress neatly and keep moving so you look like you belong, perhaps as a guest of one of the inhabitants. Do not loiter, trespass, or do anything to attract (negative) attention. Don’t worry how they made their money, or if they are possibly crooks. Perhaps some of them are. Just remark what a great job they have done on making their properties attractive.

There's an old Chinese fable about a poor student who lived above a restaurant. He could only afford plain rice, but when he ate his meals, he could smell the fine dishes being served below, and the wonderful aromas made his simple rice taste better [1]. Because the effects of wealthy neighborhoods are highly visual, merely walking through them confers much of the spiritual benefit at a tiny fraction of the cost. In fact, given that many of the inhabitants apparently do not walk for creative effect, one may perhaps obtain a greater benefit by walking through than from actually living there.

Any sufficiently safe, park-like environment will do. But many parks are hard to get to, closed after sunset, filled with people, relatively small, or have few paths. On balance I prefer upscale neighborhoods, which are like huge sculpture gardens, and will drive or take the train across town to reach them.

4. When to Walk

I prefer early morning or late evening, when it's not too hot and there are fewer people around. Between 9:30 PM and midnight is a good time, since most folks have finished walking their dogs, but it’s not so late that the police will wonder what you’re doing out. Your chances of being a crime victim may go up after 1 AM as marauders might feel you are fair game.

If you encounter people, keep your words and thoughts light and respectful. You can speak with them, as your personality moves you, but your objective is to free-associate in great depth, not sink your mental energies into interacting socially with others.

Before leaving for a walk, I find it helpful to play intense, uplifting, well structured music for a few minutes, such as rock and roll or classical, to inject rhythm and energy into my mind. It also helps to have recently read advanced technical material, which will challenge you to excel, and give you complex new ideas to react to.

5. How to Walk

Do not focus on any destination or goal, as that will tend to dominate your thinking and override creative impulses. Have a 'circuit hike' worked out in your mind, but don’t worry about following it exactly. Let yourself be guided from moment to moment by which street looks more interesting, new, or different, etc. Look around and watch the scenery flow past your eyes. Your main goals are to achieve muscle action, breathing, and scenic flow, punctuated by brief stops to check out interesting scenes or views.

Develop a number of routes of various lengths, depending on how much time you have, or how much of a physical workout you desire. Don’t be afraid to just turn around and walk back the way you came. Tell yourself it's a completely different walk, because you are seeing the trees and houses from the opposite side.

6. What to Bring

Small stacks of ordinary 3x5 cards can be clipped together and placed in one’s pocket, ready to pull out when inspiration strikes. Purchase only ruled cards, and then write only on the plain side, since it's very undesirable to write on both sides of a card.

Cards are preferable to electronic devices, because they won’t break, have no batteries to go dead, and can't be erased by accident. A hand-held dictating machine works well when you’re driving and cannot write, but is undesirable for general use, because you must play the tapes to transcribe them, which is boring. Cards are better than notebooks, since they fit easily in your pocket and you can sort them by topic.

Bring several pens, because they can either break or run out of ink. Dropping a pen onto the pavement can seriously damage or dislodge the ball, making it instantly useless. If you will be sweating, place a thin plastic sheet on at least one card stack, turned towards your body. This helps keep your note cards from becoming soaked. Before I did this I lost several ideas when the ink ran and washed them out.

Some people may view your writing as threatening. Maybe you are an officer writing them a ticket, or a stalker or private eye taking down license numbers. Look away from any license plates or house numbers when writing and face towards “nothing.” If questioned, in a friendly or hostile manner, tell them you’re writing a book. That’s worked so far, though I've had some mistaken anger directed at me.

7. How to Cue Your Creativity

Once I am walking in a suitably aesthetic environment, I will cue myself by saying “now next is,” which brings up a list of problems or questions I was working on during previous walks, or pondering earlier in the day. Review everything you know about the situation and what are the key unsolved problems. Engage in a mental dialog, asking questions and trying to come up with answers. And when answers come, be ready to write.

You can also try other, more powerful affirmations. No one else is listening, and your goal is to generate good ideas, not worry what others think. Saying something to yourself like “I am the greatest scientist / writer / designer / lawyer / marketer, etc. in the world” can help stimulate your creative juices. (And, if you generate enough quality ideas, it might come true for you some day.)

You are trying to stimulate non-linear thought, the type that doesn’t happen easily when sitting down. So don’t worry if your ideas jump around. You can generate single ideas that fit nicely on one card, or longer ones that flow across several cards, and random ideas may occur at any time. Just write them down as quickly as possible.

Short-term memory is like RAM in a computer, whereas long-term memory is like the hard drive. ST memory is fast and fluid, but is limited in size and is soon overwritten and erased. Once you get a good idea, the clock is ticking and you have only about one to two minutes, at most, to write it down or it’s gone. Moving an idea into LT memory requires something extra, like repetition, kinesthetic actions, or special emotions, etc.

I take notes during lectures, but rarely refer to them, because note taking forces me to translate from hearing to writing, thus triggering LT memory. You will remember a route far better if you are driving rather than riding, because the intense physical focus of driving will engrave the route in your mind. Occasionally I think of something great when I have no paper [2]. Then I must repeat the idea over and over, generating emotions and creating mnemonics (images, abbreviations, doggerel, or even a poem) to burn it into my LT memory.

8. Card Management

Nonlinear thinking generates ideas in random order, so you will need some system to organize your cards. Immediately actionable ideas, like shopping items, chores to be done, things to look up, calls to make, etc. can be marked with large X’s so you don’t forget to pull them out of the deck. Add new idea cards to the bottom of your stack, so it reads naturally from top to bottom. For each walk sequence I note the date and time on the left edge of the top card. For major topics I typically place a short phrase or three-letter code in the upper left corner to help with later sorting. Use rubber bands to store cards in bundles, so they won't spill or get disorganized.

Engineers and inventors use bound notebooks for a good reason, to help establish dates of conception for legal purposes. Alas 3x5 cards do not do this, since you could insert a new card way back in the stack. If legal dating of inventions or discoveries is a concern, you should regularly make copies of your cards on a xerox machine, and deliver a copy to your lawyer or advisor, to achieve provable dates.

9. Conclusion

The procedures described above can allow your mind to expand to its maximum capacity. I have gotten phenomenal results by following them, iterated over time, to generate novel and complex ideas. It really gets powerful when you generate good ideas about your prior good ideas, which can gradually evolve into immense structures. Recently this subject has been coming up in conversation, so I decided to share my insights and experiences here in more detail.

I am somewhat hesitant to reveal my system, because the supply of serene, upscale neighborhoods is often limited (unless you are fortunate enough to live in Northwest Washington, DC) and if many others got this idea it could ruin my best walking environments. If I constantly ran into other people, walking and thinking at night, it would blow my concentration. (Or worse yet, the owners might start noticing, get fed up, and fence them off!) I prefer stillness, beauty, visual flow, and an absence of human concerns.

There’s probably very little chance that the masses will copy this system and disturb my creative solitude. But if you see someone else walking around in a serene environent, stopping occasionally to make notes on some 3x5 cards, you might ask them if they’ve heard of me, or read this essay, since right now there is no one else who does this, anywhere that I've lived for over thirty years.

Perhaps in the future communities will commission thought parks, with elegant structures or sculptures (thoughtscape architecture) and writing ledges, or designate thought paths or zones, to inspire their citizens to utilize their minds at deeper levels.

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[1] (a Chinese friend adds:) When the restaurant owner learned that the poor tenant was enjoying the aromas while eating, he demanded a higher rent. A magistrate was called to arbitrate the dispute. The magistrate told the tenant to hand over his moneybag to the restaurant owner. The tenant sadly did so. The magistrate told the owner to shake the bag to see whether the amount was satisfying. The restaurant owner smiled at the sound of the clinking coins. Then the magistrate told the restaurant owner to give the moneybag back to the tenant. The magistrate ruled that hearing the sound of the tenant's money was fair compensation for smelling the restaurant's food.

[2] When the mathematician William Hamilton, best known for Hamiltonian mechanics, discovered the formula for quaternions (hyper complex numbers) he was walking along a river with his wife. He promptly carved the formula into a stone set into a nearby bridge. The original
stone is gone, but a plaque marks the spot. I can envision him scrambling to make a written record, by whatever means, lest his wonderful idea evaporate into oblivion.

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